With an estimated $6.7 billion in legal sales projected for 2016, accompanied by rapid changes in pro-cannabis public opinion and more states edging toward legalization, the cannabis industry has become a focal point of national attention.
This presents great opportunities for intrepid entrepreneurs to help shape legislative policy and public opinion. At the individual company level, using best PR practices can help build brands, educate the public, build customer loyalty and drive sales.
Most new business owners have a dreamer’s self-perception that they excel in a certain area, but unfortunately, that perception often is not shared by anyone else.
In the vast majority of cases, branding is a secondary or tertiary activity that is only possible after an identity has been forged. Then, those perceptions have to be shaped into a cohesive message or theme. Only then does a brand emerge as it first gains social value. As the company matures, brand value develops. Brands provide financial value because their corporate curators work to make sure the brand delivers on its promises in terms of product quality, corporate operations and service. From start to finish, the brand discovery process could take more than a year. In the interim, businesses should focus on doing their best work for their key audiences. So far, no major brands have emerged nationally as household names in the cannabis industry, even though cultural icons such as Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg have had their names linked with products.
Community service as a marketing tool
Doing good can pay off in more ways than one
By Alexa Divett
When a business implements a well-planned and sustained PR effort, the return on investment can be incredibly valuable.
For business owners who are unable to engage in traditional PR outreach, community service and social media can be used to their advantage. Doing well by doing good is a powerful business concept.
In Oregon, for example, the press no longer cares about new dispensaries opening. There are hundreds within the city limits of Portland alone, with more opening every day. The days of having news agencies attend grand opening parties are long over.
But community service is one way a dispensary owner can create something newsworthy that will make journalists excited.
With some creative thinking, social media savvy and the desire to foster goodwill within their community, businesses can create a buzz about their product or service.
Social media is a personal public relations tool. Businesses no longer need to rely solely on PR professionals and journalists for publicity. However, social media accounts that only focus on promotion can make their audience deaf to the message and journalists bored by the pitch. The key to any public relations and social media campaign is letting the community, key influencers and local journalists know about the good work that is being performed.
Here are a few ways different cannabis companies can draw attention to themselves, while positively impacting their communities.
– Dispensaries: Offering educational events, free medicine for underserved patients, financial assistance for those needing a medical card or community outreach such as food drives, cancer support groups or wheelchair repair gives business owners a much better shot of landing an interview with a local news outlet. (Regulations vary from state to state, so businesses should make sure they’re not breaking the law before giving away free products.)
– Garden supply store: Although grow stores are not restricted in the ways that dispensaries, growers and processors are, it never hurts to have a community-focused public relations campaign as a marketing strategy.
A garden supply store could dedicate a patch of garden space to growing food for homeless or underserved members of their community.
– Topical manufacturers: Instead of hoping that people will learn about new products from their favorite budtender, topical manufacturers can host events where they give away free products at a neighborhood dispensary to people who have chronic pain, and then ask those people to give a testimonial on their social media accounts.
– Growers and processors: There are many sick and disenfranchised people in every community and the cost of medical cards and medical marijuana can be too expensive for some patients. Growers and processors can create a newsworthy story by sponsoring patients and helping them with the costs associated with obtaining a medical card, or by donating cannabis to existing cardholders.
There are many ways cannabis business owners can generate press through community relations. All it takes is a genuine desire to help people, a little creativity and the willingness to reach out to influencers and journalists through social media and the good old-fashioned telephone.
Alexa Divett (www.alexadivett.com) is a business coach and marketing strategist who helps cannabis business owners achieve success through the implementation of sound business practices and time-tested marketing techniques.
Countering Negative Perceptions
As an industry, it is important to remember that powerful, well-established, vested interests in the judiciary, drug and law enforcement, pharmaceutical and liquor industries oppose decriminalization and legalization. To maintain the status quo and oppose any grassroots pro-cannabis referendums, these forces will often use disinformation and propaganda.
This was recently exemplified by the intentionally misleading comments from the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg.
“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not,” Rosenberg said. “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine — that’s a joke.”
Since the DEA has a vested interest in keeping cannabis illegal, it is not surprising that the agency is using its political power to discredit and stigmatize the cannabis industry.
Since the industry has been vilified and stigmatized for so long, public relations should be more aggressive at public education and confronting intentional disinformation campaigns. The good news is that there are a number of very popular cannabis-related initiatives involving military veterans, judicial reform, cancer patients, people in chronic pain and efforts to expunge the convictions of felons with non-violent cannabis arrest records who have not been rearrested.
Most of these issues have political support from Libertarians, Democrats and some Republicans. But that alone does not translate into real-time progress. Again, established corporate, political and judicial forces want change to be slow since people in power benefit from the status quo. If the cannabis industry wants to enjoy its day in the sun, it will have to push hard to advance the political process past its glacial, evolutionary pace.
Building Reputational Capital
As a new industry, cannabis business owners have the chance to start afresh as they build their corporate credibility. This is another way of saying a corporation has to behave ethically, not only for moral reasons, but because it is good business.
Studies have found that corporate credibility is one of the most important issues facing corporations today. This is because a company’s reputation impacts its sales; a survey found that four out of five Americans consider a company’s reputation when they choose to buy a product. Reputation also influences investing patterns and public opinion. For instance, when a company states its good intentions to resolve a problem, it makes public opinion more positive.
The cannabis industry has the ability to be socially transformational. The industry is emerging with a very new set of independent, young entrepreneurs who come from a variety of backgrounds and have been well-exposed to America’s counter-culture for years. While it may be an exaggeration, it’s safe to say the cannabis industry today is not Brooks Brothers, wing-tip, corporate America. While I have not seen any formal studies, I would guess it is decidedly democratic and liberal, or leaning toward libertarian, with multi-racial and multi-gender roles at the forefront.
An analogy can be made between the cannabis industry and the fracking industry, which took the Seven Sisters oil monarchs by surprise. Wildcatters working in the shadow of the big oil companies devised revolutionary oil-drilling techniques, such as horizontal drilling and experimental methods to break apart shale thousands of feet under the surface to extract oil and natural gas. In the process, they revolutionized oil exploration and did a complete end-around the major global oil companies.
Without extending this analogy too much, the cannabis industry has the ability to propel pharmaceutical research; the entertainment, music and food industries; as well as environmentalism. In the process, it will rely on grassroots social participation to reshape the nation’s antiquated anti-cannabis laws at all jurisdictional levels. This represents a major political coup, which has more potential impact on the nation than all the smoke the Tea Party has made thus far.
Impact of the Internet
It’s important that professionals in the cannabis space recognize that the Internet has fundamentally changed PR practices. PR is no longer based on exclusive access between a select group of PR people and reporters. Instead, any company can electronically tell its story directly to current and potential customers. Companies of any size can sell their products worldwide. The Web is also well-suited for viral marketing, which is an organic and often spontaneous grassroots consumer event that publicizes a product or process. However, this landscape is very much a pay-to-play landscape. So, the amount of marketing dollars available to your brand dictates the scope and impact of such campaigns.
Cutting-edge companies can also establish a reputation as thought leaders by writing white papers on a topic related to their core business or expertise. White papers can make a case for taking an action or provide information; however, they should not be product-centric.
Use the Right Term: Cannabis
Language is very important in all forms of communications, and the cannabis industry is no exception. In general, the industry should avoid referring to cannabis as marijuana, pot, weed, reefer or any of the plant’s other slang terms. Cannabis doesn’t have the stigma of older terms and should be used as the plant gets more recognition from the scientific and pharmacological communities.
Employing best practices in PR can help make the cannabis industry larger and more respected at the national level, while simultaneously building revenues and brands at the company-specific levels. This is a great opportunity to help shape a dynamic, transformative industry and PR will play an increasingly important role as the industry develops.
Cynthia Salarizadeh is the founder and CEO of Salar Communications Group. She entered the cannabis industry to focus on improving the perception of cannabis through strategic campaigns that sit at the center of the battle for legalization and economic prosperity. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations with a minor in modern Middle Eastern studies from the University of Pennsylvania.